Month: November 2023

Inquiry-Based Learning & NCSS’ New Definition of ‘Social Studies’

Earlier in November, the National Council for Social Studies approved a new definition of social studies. You might be thinking, “Why is this important?” Well, it is for several reasons. 


Let’s start with the changes to the definition.


The prior definition, as interpreted by different states, led us to understand that social studies is intended to promote civic competence through the integrated study of the social sciences and humanities (NCSS, 2023). 


While the word “promote” was appropriate to use, the verbs have now changed in the newly revised version. Using phrases like “inquiry-based approach” and “examine vast human experiences,” the focus seems to have shifted to a more contemporary lens, depicting issues that impact all citizens, young and old. 


This new definition also reflects a more active role of the student, leading them to consider a myriad of perspectives when generating opinions about what has shaped our world. It has the potential to inspire students to question, think about what is just, and then find ways to resolve challenges for different groups of people. 


An emphasis on equity


It’s also worth noting the change in disciplines referenced as part of the new definition. While some remained, the newly crafted definition includes several areas that represent equity


The specific areas of study mentioned in the revised definition include history, geography, cultural geography, human geography, economics, government, citizenship, civics, psychology, sociology, political science, international relations, anthropology, archaeology, gender studies, LGBTQ+ studies, ethnic studies (African American studies, Asian American and Pacific Islander studies, Indigenous studies, and Latin American studies), human rights and social justice, including human rights education, social justice issues, international organizations, and genocide studies, financial literacy (different from economics), and finally, contemporary issues, including courses in current events and the study of one or more social studies topics in current contexts (NCSS, 2023). 


An inquiry-based approach


As previously stated, the primary purpose of social studies was to help young people develop the ability to make informed and reasoned decisions for the public good as citizens of a culturally diverse, democratic society in an interdependent world (NCSS, 2023). However, this updated version seems to lead educators and scholars to consider using an inquiry-based approach, one that “helps students examine vast human experiences through the generation of questions, collection, and analysis of evidence from credible sources, consideration of multiple perspectives, and the application of social studies knowledge and disciplinary skills” (NCSS, 2023).  


In asking students to examine the past while participating in the present and learning how to shape the future, the newly defined social studies will prepare learners for a lifelong practice of civil discourse and civic engagement in their communities. Social studies will now center on the knowledge of human rights and local, national, and global responsibilities so that we can work together to create a just world in which we want to live.


What we believe about inquiry-based learning


One of the things that we feel strongly about at Schoolwide is the importance of promoting active learning in the classroom. The role of discourse is crucial, which is why we strategically replace some of our direct instruction with questions that produce thoughtful conversations. This line of inquiry creates opportunities for students to learn more and develop deeper understandings because we incorporate a process that includes student thinking, reflecting, researching, conversing, affirming, and revising. 


Similar to science, true inquiry begins with a question that students explore as they learn. Through the use of a matrix, our Fundamentals units invite students to focus on an enduring understanding while exploring answers to essential questions and sub-questions.


Our goal in Schoolwide’s units is for students to assume the role of researcher. By using open-ended questions, students are not memorizing facts but instead are synthesizing information from multiple sources and determining what is important and relevant. 


Inquiry-based learning and its importance for the support of multilingual learners


When teachers use an inquiry approach, they are honoring the practice of using background knowledge as a launchpad for discussion and affirmation for multilingual learners. 


Inquiry also invites students to think, share, pose questions, and research in a safe climate while feeling supported by the modeling of their classroom teachers. By inviting students to activate and value their curiosity, exploration and discovery quickly follow. Content or interdisciplinary experiences provide natural scaffolds for students to learn through multiple genres, through discourse, and through activating their personal knowledge toolbox or schema. 


Because multilingual learners are learning new content and a new language simultaneously, how information and content are shared is critical (Jana Echevarria, 2022, “Reflections on Teaching Multilingual Learners”, Using Inquiry-Based Learning with Multilingual Learners). That’s why we provide objectives after an introductory exploratory activity. The exploration aspect is preserved, yet the purpose of the lesson and learning outcomes are clarified for students 


When thinking about content literacy, language and vocabulary become a focus. Our units provide the research, the practices, and the support (TPR, list-group-label, semantic gradients, visual representations of words, etc.). Provisions for linguistic and nonlinguistic representation of words are critical for students to develop a stronger understanding of unfamiliar words and phrases. 


How we are thinking about evolving our resources in the lens of inquiry 


So, what does this all mean for how we’re further developing our future resources? We know that we must create a renewed focus on knowledge attainment and inquiry:


  • We want to enhance the experience of building background knowledge 

  • We want to design lessons with the intention for each student to become an expert in an aspect of the content being studied

  • We want to create Inquiry lessons that resonate with students

  • We want to continue to create lessons that include meaningful activities that integrate the lesson’s concepts with opportunities to practice and develop reading, writing, speaking, and listening skills

  • We want to reinforce the notion that good researchers reflect on their outcomes and are open to affirm, revise, or learn from others


A final thought on inquiry and student-led learning 


Inquiry-based lessons that incorporate the use of primary sources, project-based learning, and a compelling question in every lesson will challenge and grow students’ critical thinking skills and abilities and prepare them for future roles in our society. 







National Council for the Social Studies:


Reflections on Teaching Multilingual Learners: Using Inquiry-Based Learning with Multilingual Learners

“Included, Invested, and Treated with Respect” – A View on Successful Professional Learning Partnerships

In an earlier article, Keys to Sustaining a Professional Learning Program that Sticks, we explored the opportunities, methods, and mindsets for building and district leaders to create long-term, sustained impact through professional learning. In a similar theme, we recently checked in with two of our professional learning consultants, Marina Moran and Bridget Nolen, about how to keep educators engaged, motivated, and….even excited (yes, excited!) about professional learning opportunities.


Read their thoughts below.


Marina Moran, Professional Learning Consultant for Schoolwide:


My best response to your question is that there is not a fixed formula or recipe for promoting adult learners’ engagement. In my experience, it has always been a process that requires a lot of listening and diagnosing on my part to meet learners halfway. Needs can be very diverse within a group due to age, length of experience, and talent, so maintaining flexibility and offering ideas in a variety of ways always helps.  


There are intellectuals who want to know the research behind practices and there are also pragmatics who want to walk away with an applicable strategy the second they leave the session. I strive to provide a balanced diet of both, the strategy (WHAT we do) and the rationale or research base (WHY we do it).  


Giving back the work is also usually effective to maintain engagement during portions of a session. I often find that educators like to put themselves in the role of the students and experience simulations to better understand the impact of some practices. They also like to spend time applying skills with guidance (not different from what we do with kids).


In all cases, being responsive to the needs, personalities, and moods of the participants at a given moment is what contributes to the efficacy of a session. And that can sometimes be a juggling act, but a worthwhile one!” 

Bridget Nolen, Professional Learning Consultant for Schoolwide:

“How do I keep educators engaged in professional learning? I think about it in the same way I’d think about keeping students engaged: by knowing how much information to include in a short amount of time and how to unpack the layers of knowledge they need to be successful. From my perspective, engagement happens when teachers feel motivated to make shifts. And that happens when teachers are included, invested, and treated with respect for the professionals they are.   


Building relationships and developing a culture of support is important at the beginning of a partnership. You build trust with teachers by asking what they need to be successful, and when you follow through and follow up on their questions and requests. Teachers have lots of demands on their time and attention, so empathizing with their circumstances while giving them manageable and efficient tips for delivering new curriculum is important.   


When it comes to getting educators excited about professional learning, I focus on appealing to their beliefs about student learning. If they believe students are capable and brilliant, then they naturally want to help them reach their highest potential. That’s the same with professional learning. It’s the teachers’ opportunity to reflect upon and improve their practice, which is time we all need and deserve. We can set ambitious goals together and then provide ongoing support to get there.”



The mission of the Schoolwide Professional Learning Team is to inspire educators to embrace best practices and deliver innovative and responsive literacy instruction, in collaborative, dynamic learning environments in which teaching and learning are authentic, engaging, and respectful of all learners. 


Meet our educators > > 


Learn more about our professional learning offering Partners for Progress > > 


Read more about our approach to professional learning in our 23-24 Literacy Sampler > >


Interested in speaking with our team? Send us a note any time!

Q&A: Collaborative Planning for Tier 2 Intervention

With this school year in full swing, we’ve been excited to see how Schoolwide’s new resources, including our recently released Decodable Texts Teaching Plans, are coming to life in literacy instruction. We are connecting with educators about how these resources support Tier 2 intervention, and providing strategic professional learning opportunities to educators involved in the process. 


We sat down with Eileen Hodrinsky, a former elementary classroom teacher, reading specialist, and Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction, to discuss a critical, yet sometimes overlooked, component of an effective intervention program: collaboration. We hope to highlight opportunities for educators to partner together.


Our conversation with Eileen Hodrinksy follows:


Q: When it comes to Tier 2 intervention, and MTSS frameworks overall, we often talk about the data-driven components. But what about the “people-driven” components to effective implementation of Tier 2 intervention efforts?


Eileen: This is a great place to start this conversation. Yes, data analysis and access to literacy data are crucial components of successful intervention efforts. But in order to source that data, people need to work together effectively. When this happens, data can be more accurately sourced and shared, student progress can be more effectively tracked, and the experience for the students themselves will be far more positive. There should be a feeling of “we’re in this together!”


Q: What kind of collaboration is important for Tier 2 intervention?


Eileen: The ability to develop a plan alongside other key stakeholders is essential. Even if you’re set up with quality research-backed resources, if there aren’t strong lines of communication between the intervention teacher and other educators or influencers involved in the students’ learning, the efforts can easily become disjointed and ineffective. 


Just as the Tier 2 reading intervention resources should involve a systematic process, so should the planning. There needs to be a detailed, coordinated plan that clearly identifies the roles and responsibilities of the various parties who are supporting the student. And, intervention teachers should not only have the opportunity to develop the plan collaboratively with other stakeholders but also have time devoted to checking in on that plan’s progress. Rather than being an isolated effort, intervention should lead to progress in the classroom, and even at home!


Q: Who are the key stakeholders when it comes to collaborative planning and communication?


Eileen: It’s important for an intervention teacher or specialist to have opportunities to communicate regularly with the classroom teacher (Tier 1), as well as other support personnel, like speech and language teachers, special education teachers, and any third-party literacy consultants who may have exposure to the students. 


The classroom teacher will be able to share the focus of Tier 1 instruction and will have insight and observations about at-risk students’ attitudes and behaviors. They will know how the student is progressing and applying the strategies practiced during Tier 2 intervention. 


Administrators also have an important role to play, as they often look at literacy instruction holistically, as well as how intervention efforts fit into overall MTSS frameworks. 


Q: What about communication with parents or guardians?


Eileen: This is so important! While students spend a significant time in the classroom, they’re spending far more time at home with parents and guardians. Parents and guardians can help answer questions like: how are at-risk students reading at home? Are they exhibiting signs of disinterest or frustration? Are they attempting to independently problem-solve when they meet with challenging texts, or do they immediately ask for help? But, in order for parents and guardians to play an active, supportive role in students’ progress, they must be brought into the process from the beginning. This goes back to the earlier point about establishing a coordinated effort with all important stakeholders. 


As educators, we really need to give families the tools to be active and engaged participators in helping their children close learning gaps. That feeling of connected support in all environments is so important for young learners. 


Q: So, with all of the clear benefits in mind, what gets in the way of collaboration and communication?


Eileen: The reality is, all of these stakeholders have their own challenges and priorities. For example, intervention teachers often face barriers like limited access to quality materials for their instruction, or sometimes, limited instructional knowledge, which can leave them feeling unprepared to effectively support students. 


Administrators are often looking at their literacy instruction as a whole, including what portion of their students are meeting grade-level literacy expectations and state standards based on multiple assessment measures. They are looking for where there are gaps in the instructional programs. Administrators are also tasked with scheduling and staffing, and ensuring staff is appropriately prepared to lead intervention efforts. Time is often a common challenge shared by all. 


While these stakeholders have different perspectives, collaboration and communication can actually be the key to overcoming many of these challenges. If you feel a lack of connection in your school, my advice would be to proactively open those lines of communication. 

Get Our Newsletter